How to Compost in a 5-Gallon Bucket

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Everyone knows compost is worth its weight in gold to the vegetable gardener---providing much-needed nutrients and soil conditioners without resorting to chemical additives. However, even apartment dwellers and suburbanites with a few potted plants or tiny flower beds can benefit from compost, and you do not have to visit a farm to get it. A heap of fresh, rich soil can be yours in no time, and all you need is a 5-gallon bucket, some vegetable matter and a little patience.

Things You'll Need

  • 5-gallon bucket
  • Drill
  • 1/4-inch drill bit
  • Organic material
  • Black paint formulated for plastic (optional)
  • Extra buckets (optional)
  • Get a 5-gallon bucket---usually you can pick them up for the asking from restaurants and bakeries, where they are used to hold pickles or icing. Wash and rinse it out to get rid of salt or sugar residue that may affect your plants.

  • Drill a lot of holes around the perimeter of the bucket, to allow air to get in and excess water to flow out. Organic material needs oxygen and moisture to decompose properly, but you do not want too little of one or too much of the other. You also do not want the dirt to pour out everywhere, so stay with a small drill bit---about 1/4 inch is good.

  • Layer organic material in the bucket---starting with small broken twigs to make spaces for air to move through. You can add most anything except animal products, but it is best to alternate fresh vegetable matter like grass, plant clippings or vegetable scraps with dry leaves, straw or other "brown" stuff, to keep moisture levels ideal. According to The Joy of Compost, "The most common problem is when there is not enough 'brown' material and the compost doesn't get the air it needs and anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions develop. This creates a really smelly (ammonia-like) goo pile."

  • Sprinkle a handful of ordinary dirt (not sterile potting soil---you want the microorganisms in the soil to inoculate your compost and get it started breaking down all the organic matter in there) on each layer as you put it in. About halfway through, add a few sprinkles of water. You do not want much water---better too dry than too wet.

  • Set your bucket in a warm, sunny space to get it going since warmth helps break things down faster. Do not let it get too hot, though, or you will kill the microorganisms that are in there working for you.

  • Shake it up or roll it around once in awhile to turn and aerate the contents. In about 2 months, you should have some fine dirt to work with.

Tips & Warnings

  • Place bucket with holes in it inside a second, solid bucket to prevent dirt or moisture spilling out of holes. You will still need to drill at least two holes in the second bucket---high enough to prevent leaks---to allow for air flow.
  • Before adding ingredients, spray bucket with black, plastic paint to aid in warming.
  • Make several compost buckets so you can always have one available for fresh kitchen scraps, while others are in various stages of decomposition. Rotate them as you use compost.

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